A poignant example of a perceptive teacher's ability to miss the big issue was Patrick Welsh's "Fast-Track Trap; How 'Ability Grouping' Hurts Our Schools, Kids and Families" {Outlook, Sept. 16}.

Mr. Welsh laments ability-group tracking because it "feeds the natural inflexibility of school bureaucracies" and because anxious or status-seeking parents seek the "gifted" label for their children.

Middle-class white families cannot be allowed to escape into programs for the gifted, Mr. Welsh seems to maintain, because "black and Latino parents are often least willing or able to put needed pressure on overly rigid school bureaucracies." Also, parental striving for gifted status produces educational mismatches and stigmatization of the "ungifted."

Both of Mr. Welsh's arguments have merit but should lead him to question our massive public school system instead of our families.

The issue is not whether whites should be held hostage to protect educational opportunity for minorities within the present system. Nor is it whether middle-class parents should be conscripted as battering rams against bureaucracy. It is whether any group of parents should be consigned to these largely futile tasks.

Of course parents seek the label "gifted" when the only alternatives from the single tax-supported supplier of education seem to be "adequate" and "substandard." But why have only one supplier or one product? Why not have schools catering to a wide range of interests, such as music, science, African-American studies or traditional disciplines? Some providers could be alternative public schools -- others private schools to which parents could convey their entitlements to public funding. Such real choice makes conventional "gifted" or "average" labels pale by comparison.

Some minority leaders realize that their children would benefit most from real parental empowerment. In Milwaukee, black legislator Polly Williams has teamed with Gov. Tommy Thompson to establish a pilot project allowing some inner-city families to select their own private schools with limited state funding.

While thinkers in institutions ranging from the Brookings Institution to the Heritage Foundation find merit in tuition vouchers, school administrators and teachers' unions find them anathema. Where does Mr. Welsh stand?


Patrick Welsh left some important points out of his article "Fast-Track Trap," which panned the Fairfax County Public Schools' "gifted and talented" (GT) center program. These points are:

Like children with lower-than-normal IQ scores, kids with IQs of 140 and over have special learning needs that cannot be met in the regular classroom. One seldom hears arguments for full-time mainstreaming of kids whose IQs are 40 points or more below average.

Not everyone clamors for admission to the centers. Many GT center-eligible kids elect to stay in their base schools so that they can be with their neighborhood friends and avoid the "geeky and twerpy" stigma.

A simple name change could change the program's perceived elitist image. The "gifted and talented" name unfairly implies that other kids -- the vast majority of the population -- are ungifted.

It is not true that GT centers are showered with extra resources, or that the teachers are necessarily better. These centers are subject to the same spending limits and follow the same program of studies as base school programs. They also have a whopping share of kids with attention and behavioral problems. Yet with all their faults, the centers help ensure that kids with abnormally high IQ scores -- especially those whose families cannot afford private schooling -- will not become tomorrow's drop-outs.